Monday, January 24, 2011

Chuaro Grace Zuzo's Different is Not Stupid or Ugly: A South African Story

Having lived in South Africa, I found this book extremely interesting and gave me a deeper understanding of the tribal cultures. It is a book that is educational even to adults, but written on a level that children can understand and enjoy. The story is written in a way that makes you forget that you are learning, presented through the eyes of a fascinated girl who is trying to understanding the rich and varied cultures of her country.

South Africa has a rich cultural history and is the true melting pot of the world. Outside of the large Indian population and European cultures (Dutch, English, Portuguese, Italian, and Greek), there still remains a large tribal population and as diversified of African culture as there is European culture; of South African Africans cultures alone (excluding the many other African immigrants) there are the Zulu, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Venda, and Shangaan.

The young girl, Chuaro, prides herself on her urbanity, and her ability to combine different languages and cultural influences, moving from Afrikaans areas to townships where Tswana, Sotho, Pedi, Tsonga, Venda, Ndebele, Zulu, and Xhosa were spoken. Chuaro, like many young girls of Johannesburg, saw their urbanized education and dress and ability to speak multiple languages as superior, viewing the tribal people of the homelands as less intelligent.

Chuaro becomes curious about the cultures of South Africa when she travels from Johannesburg to Transkei, a former Bantustan of the Republic of South Africa, a homeland set aside for Xhosa-speaking people during apartheid. When she first asks why the Xhosa women do not wear bras or blouses, she is summarily tongue-lashed by a girl who takes offense to her city mentality towards the traditional style of life, surprised by the intelligence of someone she assumed was backwards. She is breathless and stunned when she sees the traditional outfits of different cultures, learning to appreciate their beauty rather than deriding them as ugly.

As she asks questions and seeks women of the different tribes to explain their culture to her, she learns about coming of age for girls in South African cultures, what it means to be a woman in each culture, the false values that she attributes to material possessions as a city girl, and that different is not stupid. While the story is written in such a way for children to understand and enjoy with beautiful colorful pictures of the traditional garments of different tribal backgrounds, it is a book that is educational and meaningful to adults, imparting important lessons and is a startling educational and intelligent children's book. While it could take a lifetime to learn about all of these cultures and to come to appreciate the lessons imparted, Zuzo manages to synthesize it into 33 pages.